“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Do you believe in true love? Probably so: 94 percent of Americans say they do, according to one 2019 survey by the data-collection company Statista. I am one of them, after 30 years of marriage to my true love.
True love isn’t too controversial, I think. But a large portion of Americans also hold some even more romantic—and less realistic—beliefs about love. According to a 2017 survey run by the dating site Elite Singles, 61 percent of women and 72 percent of men believe in love at first sight. Back in 2011, a Marist poll asked, “Do you believe in the idea of soul mates, that is two people who are destined to be together?” To this question, 74 percent of men and 71 percent of women answered “yes.”
To many of those who believe in them, these widespread, almost magical notions of romance might be the essence of true love. Others might say that a more earthbound approach to romance is better—that true love over the long haul is a combination of good luck, free will, and hard work. The evidence shows that the latter group is correct. What’s more, engaging in fanciful ideas about romantic love can make it harder to find and keep.
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Many studies have shown that popular culture and media tend to portray love and romance unrealistically, leaning disproportionately on love at first sight and living happily ever after. Research on Disney’s animated movies, for example, shows that the majority of them rely on exactly these themes. These films may, in turn, influence children’s and young adults’ views about romance. A 2002 study on 285 unmarried undergraduate students (both women and men) found a strong correlation between the time they spent watching television programs related to love and romance and how much they expressed idealistic expectations about marriage. A 2016 study found that tween girls who had recently watched a movie depicting a love story were more likely to “endorse idealistic romantic beliefs” than those who had watched a non-romantic movie.
Despite its popularity in stories and movies, love at first sight has little to do with reality. Researchers have found that what people describe as “love at first sight” has no connection to the real hallmarks of true love, including passion, intimacy, and commitment. Rather, “love at first sight” is either a phrase people use about the past to romanticize their meeting (notwithstanding the way it actually happened) or one that they use to describe exceptionally strong physical attraction.
Even though it’s a fantasy, believing in love at first sight is relatively harmless for couples. That’s because it’s a retrospective narrative, not one that sets expectations about the current relationship or the future. Other idealistic but unrealistic beliefs can do a lot of damage. Take the idea of romantic destiny, or “soul mates”—the belief that two people are deliberately brought together by unseen forces. Research on hundreds of college students has shown that such expectations are correlated with dysfunctional patterns in relationships, such as the assumption that partners will understand and predict each other’s wishes and desires with little effort or communication because they’re a cosmically perfect match. In other words, a belief in destiny leads to a belief in mind reading.
This wreaks havoc on relationships. For one, it hinders forgiveness after a fight (“You should know what bothers me without me having to tell you!”), which in turn increases distress and escalates the severity of conflicts. Researchers have also found that people who believe in destiny are more likely to end a relationship via “ghosting,” in which one partner abruptly cuts off contact, leaving the ghosted partner to suffer a breakup with no explanation. Perhaps people in search of their soul mate feel less of a sense of responsibility to the other person if that particular relationship simply wasn’t meant to be.
The opposite of “destiny beliefs” is a conviction of free will—the view that partners decide whether they should be together, and thus, that they are responsible for the relationship’s success. Lest that sound a bit unromantic, researchers have found clear evidence that when the belief in free will increases, so do one’s feelings of passionate love in a relationship.
Fundamentally, destiny beliefs in romance commit the “arrival fallacy”: the belief that once a certain circumstance is attained, all will be permanently well. Believing in soul mates is functionally the same as believing that if you get a certain job, achieve financial independence, or move to a sunny place, you will have true and lasting satisfaction. Nothing is more human than this belief, which keeps us hopeful in spite of our negative experiences. But it is a recipe for unhappiness. We cannot attain permanent satisfaction—at least, not in this mortal coil—and waiting for it will leave us disappointed over and over again.
If you’re searching for the right relationship, you can avoid the pitfalls of destiny beliefs in three ways. First, remember that Hollywood doesn’t have your love interests at heart. When you indulge in a romantic comedy, consider its source. According to the U.K.-based Marriage Foundation, “A-list” screen stars have a divorce rate of 52 percent within the first 16 years of their first or subsequent marriages, more than 10 points higher than the rate after the same length of time among even the divorciest cohort of Americans, who wed for the first time in the 1970s; more than 20 points higher than Americans who wed for the first time in the 1960s; and 21 points higher than the U.K. average. Not even the creators of the movie can achieve the standard they are promoting. Enjoy the occasional rom-com as entertainment if you must, but do so in the way you do science fiction, because it is about as realistic.
Second, work deliberately to make sure that your romance grows beyond the white-hot flame that characterizes new love. Maintaining passionate love forever after is not only an unrealistic goal, but one that wouldn’t make you happy even if it were possible. On the contrary, the most joyful, enduring romances are those that are able to evolve from passionate to companionate love—which still has plenty of passion, but is fundamentally based in deep friendship. To increase the odds of success, as your romance progresses, don’t ask yourself, “Is our passion as high as it was?” but rather, “Is our friendship deepening?”
Finally, ask any potential partners about their destiny beliefs right from the start. Someone who says he is looking for his “soul mate” or who confesses to believing in love at first sight might seem wonderfully romantic at the outset, but a few weeks or months down the line, he’ll be disproportionately likely to be unable to forgive you for not reading his mind, or to suddenly become unreachable by voice, text, DM, or email. Looking for a realist is a better bet.
Enduring love is not some kind of cosmic switch, turned on once and for all by mysterious forces. Rather, it is a dial that we can turn up over time by the commitments we choose to make and keep to one another. Romantic love is very much like any other important pursuit: Success comes from our ongoing effort; satisfaction from a job well done.
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,” Shakespeare wrote in his 116th sonnet, “But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” True love goes on and on, along sometimes bumpy roads. Challenges and low points are not evidence that partners are not meant to be together; rather, they are inevitable, and opportunities for growth. Long-term romance is such a sweet adventure precisely because it is not destiny.